Monday, September 08, 2008


Our neighbour has been loping up and down Anderson Street all morning, mostly empty-handed, though once he was purposefully clutching a carton of milk. He’s a retired accountant – and with his solemn moustache, square wire-framed glasses and a revolving wardrobe of collared shirts and slacks, he looks like one. Only his impossibly wide eyes and alarmingly arched eyebrows signal his impassioned second career, as a dogged community activist. He goes to council meetings and makes speeches; sets private appointments with our local MP and other politicians; has the local paper on speed dial. He regularly crosses the city to Camberwell, where a lady types up his petitions and letters of protest for $30 each. (“She’s very good,” he tells me. “If you ever need some typing done ...”) It’s not unusual that I’ll be walking past and he’ll shout “I spoke to Wade Noonan today!” or “they’re starting to listen!” from behind his roses and geraniums.


Two weeks ago, I was walking to the train station when I noticed Keith (not his real name) striding towards me from the railway lines ahead. His face was set, sharply focused in my direction. He crossed the road and opened his mouth, raising an arm to flag me down. Or so I thought. The power walker at my side, in his lycra shorts and gleaming white sneakers, iPod at his waist, audibly sighed as Keith blocked his path.
“We’ve got em now! I’ve ...”
“Not now, Keith.”
“No, no, it’s okay. I have to tell you ...”
“Keith, no. I’ve got my pulse up. Got to keep going.”
“That’s fine. I’ll walk with you.”
“NO, Keith.”
With the beatific inner smile of the newly reprieved, I watched them round the corner just ahead of me, Keith just centimetres from the power walker’s side, his moustachioed face leaning into the man’s grimace as he waved him off angrily. Their disjointed symphony of furious monologue and equally emphatic dismissal faded to a hum as I passed the hairdresser’s.


Keith spends much of his time these days crusading on two causes: reinstating the underpass at Yarraville train station and cutting back the buses that cruise up and down Anderson Street. He’s not the only one campaigning for an underpass – there’s a community group headed up by a local trader, too. There have been two accidents at the level crossing on Anderson Street in the past year: a cyclist and a council worker driving a truck have both been hit by trains. (Admittedly, both times the security barriers have been firmly up, and the unfortunate victims have dodged or broken through them.) During peak hour, it’s not uncommon for crowds of commuters and locals to be stranded at the railway crossing for a solid five minutes or more. An underpass would be handy. I’m all for it. I’ve even signed Keith’s petition, which is sticky-taped to the counter at the local fish and chip shop.

I’m very much not on his side when it comes to the bus issue. Yes, many of those buses are empty. But it takes time to attract users to a new service, and until recently, the buses were scheduled so haphazardly (not linking with trains, no buses for two hours at lunch time, no buses after 6pm-ish, barely running on weekends) that they were only useful to pensioners with time on their hands and shopping to do. Or, occasionally, before I moved from the far side of Yarraville: me. I have no car and a lazy streak which sometimes compelled me to skip the 20-minute walk from the shopping strip, in favour of a bus ride that took exactly the same length of time.

I was always amazed at the fortitude of my elderly fellow passengers, as the bus lurched along the back streets and over speed humps, jolting me from my seat as I clung to the steel poles and braced my jarred back. Tree branches were often clipped as the bus spun around corners. There were so few passengers that, instead of abiding by the scheduled stops, you were encouraged to call out when the bus passed nearest your house. At your shout, it would crunch to a sudden halt, sending shopping bags and any standing passengers skidding along the aisle.

Two years ago, when I was working full-time, I got sick. The kind of sick where you don’t really get better after a week at home, and you force yourself to return to work because it’s obvious that this is going to last a while, and you can’t very well not work for weeks. I couldn’t walk very far without pain – and certainly not the distance to the train station – so I was forced to rely on the bus to get to work. I would cross Cruikshank Park in the morning dark, my breath melting into the surrounding mist as I powered through the gloom towards the lights of Somerville Road. There, I would huddle outside the Hungry Jacks and make small talk with the teenage boy who caught my bus every day at the same stop. (“Don’t walk through the park,” he warned me. “Girls have been raped in there after dark. And my sister has friends who’ve been followed by guys who’ve exposed themselves.”) The bus was inconvenient and irregular, and the drivers were mostly terrible, but it meant that I got to work each day, through the six weeks that I was ill. And every time Keith starts growling about the buses, I wonder how I would have continued to work without them.

I don’t have the courage to tell Keith what I think about the buses, though I do politely decline to sign the petitions he brings to our door. I nod and I listen and I purse my lips, but he knows I’m not with the program. I think that’s why he brings up the waste of fuel caused by the empty buses, fixing me with an challenging stare. How can I argue with that? Not long ago, he handed me a photocopied printout with the names, addresses and email contacts for our local member, council members and the transport minister. There was also an example letter that I could write, calling for the bus times to be limited. When I shut the front door and returned to serving up spaghetti bolognaise, F was watching me closely. “Did you tell him he’s wrong?” I don’t think I did, not really. I think I chose good neighbourly relations over my ideals. Who knows when we’ll next need to fetch a football, or when the dog will burrow under the fence into his backyard? And even though I disagree with him, I do like him.


This morning, at 7am, there were footsteps at our window, the dull thud of something hitting the verandah, the metal creak of the front gate being latched, then a slow fade of steps, now on the footpath.

Some hours later, at 9.30am, The Husband slapped the Sunday Herald Sun on the kitchen table, on top of yesterday’s Age.
“What is THAT?”
“I’ve got you the Herald Sun.”
He dropped the charade.
“It was on the doormat when I opened the front door.”
“I don’t know.”


Rewind to January this year: F’s first day back at school. One of his friends was over. The friend’s mother, M, and I sat companionably on my front porch, sipping gin and tonics and ignoring the squeals and shouts from the backyard. My bare legs rested on the wooden railing, the dark green paint peeling beneath my toes.

“I was on The Price is Right today.”

We looked up, startled, towards the open front gate. Keith was halfway up the front path, wearing a navy suit and striped tie – looking unusually formal.
“He-llo,” sang my companion. I heard the alcohol in her voice before I felt it tilting inside my head.
“Hi. I was on The Price is Right today, that’s where I’ve been this afternoon and it’ll be on TV this Wednesday. You should watch.”
“Wow, that’s great. I’ll ... I’ll certainly try.”
He said something about picking suitcases and that he picked one that won him $500.
“I can’t complain about that,” he grinned. “$500, hey? Well, make sure you watch.”
“Okay. Thanks for telling us. That’s great.” We both waved at him as he fastened the gate behind him and moved on, briefcase in hand, to the next house. We heard the gate open, footsteps, and a surprised voice at the front door.

My friend and I looked at each other.
“Is he a sandwich short of a picnic?” she whispered.
“Yes,” I giggled, pouring a trickle of gin into each of our glasses as two small boys crashed through the screen door and spilled at our feet. “I think he is.”


At our dining room table this morning, as The Husband spooned rice porridge into his mouth and I chewed a muesli bar, I spotted Keith lingering outside on the footpath. He put a hand on the front gate, stepped towards the house, then changed his mind and moved away.

“Maybe it was Keith,” I suggested. “Maybe he’s in the Herald Sun today and that’s why he put it there.”
“Could be.”
“Should we check?”
“If you want to.”

We couldn’t find him. But it’s still the best explanation I’ve got for why someone went to the trouble of carefully delivering us a Sunday Herald Sun.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Birthday (1)

The birthday begins on Thursday afternoon at 4pm, when The Ex informs me that F wants cupcakes to bring into class the next day, and can I bake some that evening?
“No,” I say. “I can’t.”
“Oh. Okay. Well, I can make them, then, and bring them to you when I drop him off.”
“Sure, fine.”
“Oh. Okay. I thought I’d give you the chance to do it, you know, because you do it every year.”
“He’s in Year Three now. They don’t do that anymore. I’m not baking him cakes to take to school on every birthday for his whole life.”
“Okay. It’s just ... he wants them. He’s asked about it.”
“Well, he should have asked earlier. He can’t just ask for things the night before. I have work to do tonight. I can’t do it.”
“It’s fine. I’ll bring them in.”

F is dropped off on Swanston Street, below the blue fairy lights of the Arts Centre, at 7.30pm. He slithers out of the car, feet first, as his father passes two bulging supermarket bags through the open door; each tied in a filmy white bow.
“Here are the cakes and the icing. It’s all there. All you have to do is ice them!”
“But I don’t have time! I told you that.”
“The icing is made! It’ll take you no time at all.”
“Well, I can’t. I have work to do.”
We glare at each other as I close the door and back onto the footpath, pulling F with me. He chases the car along Swanston Street at a leisurely jog, easily keeping pace with the sluggish traffic. He skips off the kerb and onto the road to tap at the window of the crawling car. I scold him and pull him back again. (“You could get yourself run over!”)
“Bye Dad! Bye Dad!” he sings, dancing along the footpath now, against the tide of slickly suited office workers and carefully groomed theatregoers.
“I’m sorry, I can’t do it,” I tell him, throwing out my words in cross little bites. I explain that I have to prepare and practice for a big talk I have to give tomorrow, that he can’t ask things at the last moment, that I told Dad I couldn’t do it. My thoughts whirl furiously as I talk, an undertow of resentment: I’m already here picking F up from the city so that The Ex, whose car is at the mechanic’s, won’t have to catch public transport from the inner south to Yarraville tomorrow morning. This is one favour too many. As F accepts his fate, that he will bring naked cakes to school tomorrow, I realise with a twist of the stomach that I will, of course, ice the bloody things.


“You are a good mother,” hums The Husband, watching from the couch as I untie the bags and wrestle with the plastic containers of icing. One is gluey-white; the other iridescent blue. I dip a tentative finger into the blue and lick it, recoiling at the chemical assault on my tongue. It must have been just as vile when I made blue-and-yellow cupcakes last year, when he barracked for the West Coast Eagles. Maybe it tastes worse when someone else makes it. I cross the room and extend a blue-tipped finger to The Husband. He squints at it.
“Taste it.”
“Just a little bit?”
“It’s disgusting.”
“Yeah, I know it will be. It’s bloody bright blue, for god’s sake.”
I scrape the knife across each cake as quickly as I can, working my way through the bag and arranging them on a plastic tray. Do I have to do all of them? There’s not going to be enough icing anyway. There are 30 cakes.

“F?” I’m at the doorway of his darkened bedroom.
“How many kids in your class?”
I’m pretty sure he is making it up, to make sure I ice all the cakes. I’m pretty sure there are 24 kids in his class. Or is that 26? The icing runs out at 26.

It’s 9pm when the plastic-wrapped tray of blue and white circles is finished, and I can start work.


It’s Crazy Hair Day today. The pharmacy at Flinders Street station was closed last night, and by the time I finished the cakes, the last local one was, too. It’s an early start, so we can take a slightly different route to school and buy the obligatory coloured hairspray on the way. First, I smother F’s hair in surf wax and tease his hair upright. He looks like a sandy-haired Robert Smith from The Cure, in school uniform.
“I look SO crazy!” he shouts at his reflection. “I will DEFINITELY win the prize for craziest hair! Yeah!”
He poses, perched on the rim of the bath, plucking at the strings of his imaginary air guitar.

On the footpath outside our house, he bends to waggle his head at his shadow, a miniature Narcissus at his bitumen looking-glass.
“I’m a PUNK, Mum!”
“You certainly are.”

At the pharmacy, we tie Snuffy to a yellow pole in the carpark, away from the glass shards that stud the gravel. There is only one can of coloured hairspray left: orange.
“There must be a school sports day or something,” apologises the bemused sales assistant.
“It’s Crazy Hair Day!” beams F.
“Ahhh,” she smiles. “Well, your hair certainly is crazy.”
“I know! It’s my birthday, too.”
She nods at the tray of cakes as she hands me my change and says something complimentary about them.
“Yes! All the kids always LOVE my Mum’s cakes. She makes the BEST cakes!”
Weirdly, I am touched even as I remind him that his dad actually made them. Snuffy watches, wide-eyed, as F dips and twists his head and I attack it with a sticky, hissing mist of fluorescent orange. His ear is streaked orange, as are my hands. I spit into a crumbling tissue from my jeans pocket and clean his ear. My hands remain stubbornly bright.

F bounds alongside Somerville Road and its growling chorus of trucks and cars. He practices leaping, in a kind of flying crouch, landing with his feet wide apart, his tongue firmly protruding in a defiant pink arrow. “RAAAAAAAAAAAAAR!” It’s a sort of unconscious perversion of the Maori haka. He is especially delighted when the first uniformed kids emerge from a cross-street, their longish hair defying gravity with the help of tightly woven pipe cleaners. “RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAR!”
“Oh, hello F!” laughs their Dad. He looks at the cakes. “Is it your birthday?”
“Yes! It is!” He turns to me, suddenly serious. “Can you come to assembly today?”
“Sorry darling, I can’t. I have work to do. My talk today.”
“Please? They’ll give me my birthday card. I’m going to achieve my dream today – to get up on a stage in front of people looking like this.”
“It might not be until next week.”
“No. My name was in the newsletter this week.”
“I’m so sorry, darling, but I just can’t. I have to be in the city to give this talk at 12.30pm and before that I have to have a shower and wash my hair and get dressed and practice again.” I appeal to his finely developed sense of logic and justice. Then I appeal to his sense of humour, for good measure. “I can’t get up in front of people like this, can I?” I am wearing jeans and sneakers, with a hooded tracksuit top. My hair is scraped back in a greasy ponytail.
“Sure you could.”
We’re at the school gate now. I hug him tight and wave him off as he leaps into the schoolyard, tongue flickering, tray of cakes held before him. “RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAR!”